My very first college English professor, who taught the very first course I attended my freshman year and who addressed us as her “dears,” used to tell us that we ought to have good vocabularies, but we ought not use them. I was eighteen years old; I had been steeping for six years or so in an atmosphere of nineteenth century novels which extended into multiple hundreds of pages, with sentences that contrived to fill whole half-pages bursting with extravagant vocabulary. The idea of having a large vocabulary but leaving it unused offended my sensibilities.
Being now an instructor of eighteen-year-old college freshmen, I find myself conceding the point a bit. Lacing an already-mediocre paper with polysyllabic words generally does not improve its quality. If we can’t make our point in words of one syllable, we aren’t likely to improve that point by complicating the vocabulary.
C. S. Lewis talks about this in the context of theology, saying that “if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning” (“Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock).
Educated language is the privilege of those who understand it. But, the truth is, it is easier to string together syllables of some special jargon or other than to translate the jargon into words the uninitiated can grasp.
Suppose I elevate John 1:1 with a more complicated vocabulary? “In the primary instant existed the Smallest Isolable Meaningful Element of Language (SIMEL), and the SIMEL existed in the company of the Supreme Being, and the SIMEL existed as the Supreme Being.” (Thanks to Dictionary.com for assistance with the elevating.) Certainly, I have used more vocabulary, more complicated words. But have I improved on the original? Have I not rather stripped it of its grace and grandeur, taken away its immediacy and impact, drained it of its light?
I adore dictionaries and thesauri. I can happily entertain myself in their pages. But part of having a good vocabulary is knowing when to use it.
In the beginning was not the dictionary. In the beginning was the Word. There aren’t enough words in the world to describe this Word. John himself supposes that if all the things this Word did after He became flesh were written down, “the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). But those books were not written. The Word was enough.
Have a vocabulary. Use that vocabulary. But use it for clarity, not confusion. Use it to illumine, not to obscure.
©2013 by Stacy Nott